Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Propriety and false antitheses

I'm often troubled by the pragmatism that plagues American evangelicalism, especially when it comes to worship. I'll spare the usual comments on "worship" music for the time being. But one thing that bothers me is the loss of "holy spaces." That is, I am saddened by the fact that most Christians don't see the need for places or situations that call for a heightened sense of propriety and reverence. And, I understand that this lack often stems from good intentions in applying the truths of Scripture, specifically the blessings we have under the new covenant. Unfortunately, these applications often result in over-compensation.

Jesus' comments to the Samaritan woman in John 4 reveal to us that the new covenant does away with the legally-prescribed centrality of the Jewish Temple. True worshippers, says Jesus, worship God in Spirit and in truth, and their worship is not limited to a single geographic location. (One could argue that an obvious reason for the removal of spatial restrictions is due to the explosive expansion of the Gospel to the ends of the earth.) Unfortunately, I think a misunderstanding of this passage frequently results in a mindset that sees worship as a "purely spiritual" act; that is, the physical surroundings are irrelevant because worship is something that takes place in the "real sanctuary" of our hearts/minds/souls. This mentality, sadly, is rife with Gnosticism.

The false antithesis created is something like this: if the new covenant has abolished all the prescribed ritual and ceremonial rules, then anything goes. The latter statement may be stated in a less direct manner, but the conclusion still remains that almost anything can be permissible as long as it is done in a "spiritual" manner. (The exceptions would be, of course, actions that are clearly forbidden. At least, I hope they would be considered exceptions.) But this false antithesis reveals - yet again - a gnostic impulse that sees the spiritual as completed disconnected from the physical. The fact that our worship is not regulated as meticulously as it was under Torah should not lead us to believe that the circumstances in which we worship are completely irrelevant.

Because our bodies and souls are inseparably linked, it is unwise to think that our physical circumstances do not impact how we worship. If I am extremely hungry or freezing cold, my focus on worshipping God will likely be impaired. Can the Spirit work to overcome this distraction? Absolutely. Of course, the Spirit frequently works through such "non-spiritual" means as my eating breakfast or central heating in the sanctuary! This may seem like a silly example, but often, churches fail to apply similar logic to other areas of worship. Such as, is an extremely high decibel PA system completely irrelevant, or could it actually impact worshippers in a negative way? Is the dress worn by worshippers completely neutral, or could the sense of reverence in worship be somehow influenced by the decision to wear a nice shirt versus a faded T-shirt? Could the architecture of a church building contribute to worship, or does it make absolutely no difference whether we worship in a cathedral or a converted warehouse?

The point in all of this is not to create new rules by which to govern worship. If true worshippers worship God "in Spirit and in truth," then no set of surroundings can hamper the work of the Spirit in enabling Christians to worship. And conversely, no set of surroundings can manufacture genuine worship if the Spirit is not involved. But too often, these facts are used to discard the need for wisdom and discernment in how we worship God. All things may be lawful, but not all of them are beneficial. Because of the weakness of our flesh, Christians should prayerfully consider how circumstances and surroundings can be a help or a hindrance to our worship.

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